NEWPORT, Ore. -- Four murders on the Oregon Coast in the mid-1990s, along with a number of others in British Columbia, may be linked to a suspect who died in an Oregon prison six years ago, police said Tuesday.

The B.C. cases were collectively called the Highway of Tears, referring to three roads between Prince Rupert and Prince George. Remains of 18 women and girls were found near the roadways between 1974 and 2006.

The alleged killer, Bobby Jack Fowler, died of lung cancer in the Oregon prison, said Lincoln County District Attorney Rob Bovett.

In January, 1995, Jennifer Esson, 15, and Kara Leas, vanished on a Newport road. Loggers found their bodies several weeks later. Fowler was known to be living in Lincoln County at the time of those deaths, he said.

Fowler may also be linked to the deaths 1992 deaths of Melissa Sanders, 17, and Sheila Swanson, 19, who disappeared on a camping trip to Beverly Beach. Their bodies were found months later. There is no evidence that Fowler lived in the area at the time, but he is a person of interest in those cases, Bovett said.

All four deaths were never solved.

Fowler was arrested in 1995 and convicted the next year for kidnapping and raping a woman at a Newport motel. She escaped from the second-story with a rope tied to her foot. Fowler was sentenced to 16 years.

B.C. police outlined Tuesday how DNA evidence from a 1974 murder led to Fowler in 2012.

Standard investigative methods of the day were exhaustively pursued with no arrest. In 2007, the DNA of an unknown male was singled out, but Royal Canadian Mounted Patrol authorities said no match could be made.

Last May, advanced DNA techniques used by the Oregon State Police crime lab determined that the DNA matched Fowler. The RCMP traveled to Lincoln County to work with Oregon law enforcement.

The RCMP said Fowler has been linked for certain to two additional murders in B.C. Of the 18 women and girls killed since 1974, Fowler's involvement has been eliminated in eight of the deaths.

Read more in the Vancouver Sun

Any witnesses who may recall Fowler in Oregon from the 1990s should contact Lincoln County DA investigator Ron Benson at (541) 265-0271m or any local CrimeStoppers outlet, or the RCMP in B.C.

He's been in many states over the course of 30 years, Bovet said. The more we look and poke into his actual whereabouts, the more we become suspicious that there may be additional victims.

Fowler worked in construction in 1995, on jobs that included the Worldmark Resort in Depoe Bay and the Hallmark Resort in Newport.


KGWReporter Mark Hanrahan contributed to this report.

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